Wednesday, October 23, 2013

"Mental illness and the loss of community"

From the Grand Haven Tribune:
One of the most significant contributions of Sigmund Freud to the psychology of religion was his understanding of the importance of a community for mental health.

Oct 23, 2013

In his book, "Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego," he writes: "It appears that where a powerful impetus has been given to group formation, neuroses may diminish and, at all events temporarily, disappear." He goes on to point out how groups such as churches contribute greatly to a person's mental health: "Justifiable attempts have also been made to turn this antagonism between neuroses and group formation to therapeutic account."

The primary role of a church in pastoral care is providing a person with a loving, caring community. What has struck me about the biographies of the mass murderers in recent years is their lack of community — whether we are considering a church, a family, a romance, or even a strong group of friends. The picture that emerges is a lonely individual who spends much time in front of a computer screen or playing a violent video game.

There are many causes of mental illness: biological, cultural, developmental, abuse of drugs, lack of love and true intimacy. Often what is missing in this litany is the lack of community or its loss, which Freud pointed out does much psychic damage.

To get a glimpse of the power of such a loss, just recall your first feelings of being homesick. I first encountered that feeling when going off to summer camp at around 12, and sitting under a tree feeling all alone. But quickly the camp community made me feel at home away from home.

We can also understand the effects of a loss of community in families that suffer a divorce. Regardless of the reasons for a divorce, and there are some good ones (e.g., physical abuse, adultery, drug addiction), the psychic damage to all concerned can be horrific. The family unit is the building block of community life.

When families suffer from a divorce, if they were attending church, they often drop out. As a pastor, I used to hear constantly: "There is no place for me as a divorced person and now single in a church."

I know of churches which have fired staff members, including the chief pastor, because he or she went through a divorce, and most often it was not even initiated by this staff person. That is an example of churches not being Christian!

Freud pointed out that the rise of psychoanalysis was an effect of religious decline. People stopped going to their priests for confession, so they began seeing a psychotherapist. Psychotherapy through the power of a relationship can make great contributions to healing people who are isolated from family, church, and even the towns in which they live.

The rise of modern psychology is linked with the alienation that increased as people moved from family farms into large cities in the late 19th century and early 20th.

While living and working and studying at Boston State Hospital in 1976, I tried, along with my colleagues, to create community among the patients. Worship was one way we did this. Sadly, American prisons have replaced state mental hospitals as a place to warehouse the mentally ill (in New York City, the cost of one prisoner for one year is $167,731).

Due to overcrowding and the cost, the mentally ill are often rapidly let out of prisons without treatment. They then roam our streets and are called "the homeless." That is an apt metaphor for a person who has no community, no home, no family, no church.

The greatest challenge for the church today is being a warm community where everybody feels loved and cared for and nourished, and then reaching out to those who desperately need such love and care, especially the mentally ill wandering like ghosts among us.

Loneliness and isolation are perhaps the most painful of all the ills which plague us. Here the church has much to offer.

As Genesis 2:18 reads, "The Lord God said, 'It is not good that the man should be alone.'" Adam needed community, a family and a home — and so do we.

— By the Rev. Henry Idema, Tribune community columnist

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